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Manufacturing fun

Nick Rowbotham critiques the corporate culture and top-down organisation of USU events.

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A recent article in the literary journal Overland bemoaned what the author dubbed Sydney’s “event culture”. By this he meant the dominance of Sydney culture by big-ticket, corporate-sponsored events and festivals like Sydney Festival and Tropfest, which often eschew arts and culture at the grassroots level in favour of an imposed artifice of ‘fun’.

Does this sound familiar?

It should to those who’ve witnessed the University of Sydney Union’s marketing and events in recent years. Indeed, in 2012, the theme of the Verge Festival was ‘compulsory fun’. Inadvertently, this moniker captured much of what is wrong with the USU’s event culture. That is, the wrong people are in control of the USU’s biggest events and festivals.

On too many occasions, the USU’s clubs and societies (C&S) are left out of decisions regarding major events, which is peculiar given that the C&S programme, for all its flaws, has supported organic student culture. It has done so precisely because the USU hands financial and organisational power to clubs and societies.

The shows produced by SUDS and MUSE, the revue season, the myriad faith-based and political clubs and societies, and innumerable other social and special interest groups on campus thrive because they operate democratically.

Sadly, this democratic spirit exists to a far lesser extent in the USU’s festivals and major events, many of which are funded more handsomely than any individual club or society could ever be.

O-Week, Verge, and the USU’s other festivals are organised by unelected USU staff members working alongside a small group of student organisers. The marketing department has a disproportionate amount of control within the organisation, which is reflected in the corporate saturation of O-Week.

It is an indictment on the managerial culture within the USU, and the inability of the elected Board Directors to challenge it, that so much money is poured into events organised by USU staff and a handful of student festival directors.

This year’s O-Week will feature nearly forty corporate stalls. O-Week costs around $200,000, so perhaps it is understandable that the USU seeks sponsors, but the corporate dimension of O-Week is more than just a funding mechanism for the USU’s services. It sits very comfortably with the marketing imperatives of the USU’s senior management, who see advertising as an end in itself.

To attract this degree of corporate sponsorship requires the projection of a sanitised version of student ‘fun’, evident, for instance, in a video produced after the 2013 O-Week, described aptly by one commenter as “two minutes of product placement into which some students have accidentally walked”. Such an image of student culture could not be further detached from the realities of student life embodied in C&S.

This top-down approach was typified by the USU’s litany of often juvenile and sometimes offensive parties in 2013: a school girls and boys themed ‘back to school party’, a ‘onesie party’, a Mexican ‘day of the dead party’, the list goes on. These parties were organised with little to no student consultation.

The effect of this marketing focus is that the C&S programme – which should be at the centre of O-Week – is subordinated to the USU’s broader financial objectives. Though not an incorporated entity, the USU behaves very much like a business. To give but one example of how this is manifested during O-Week, the USU prohibits clubs and societies from ‘spruiking’ outside their stall and along Eastern Avenue, but allows corporate participants free reign to do so.

“The echo chamber of self-congratulation is deafening,” wrote the author of the Overland piece in reference to Sydney’s corporate cultural elites. The same could be said about those at the helm of the USU’s cultural programs. Surely we can do better.